Great Cities and the Shadow of Teotihuacan

Great cities have always had an influence beyond their borders.

This is true not only of contemporary cities like New York, Paris and Beijing but also of ancient cities. The influence of Rome can still be seen today in the form of ancient roadways and aqueducts.

Teotihuacan Pottery Mask

But whether exporting engineering or religion like ancient Rome, or artwork and pottery like the ancient Mexican city of Teotihuacan, it’s important to understand that cities have always been – and still are – vital centers of commerce, science, art and culture that have an impact far broader than their municipal footprints.

At a recent summit in Philadelphia sponsored by the Knight Foundation and Delaware Valley Grantmakers, and organized by TechnicallyPhilly’s Chris Wink, participants discussed the social and urban challenges facing Philadelphia, and considered the possibility that such challenges might present unexpected opportunities.

Wink’s thoughts on this subject are well worth the read, as evidenced by the impressive turnout at this recent event.

I had the pleasure of attending this summit, and one of the most profound realizations I took from it was sparked a comment made by one of my fellow participants.

This individual observed that with alarming commonness, for those of us that reside outside of large cities, it is far too easy to see an ownership stake in the assets of these cities, while seeing no ownership stake at all in the problems facing these cities.

The Mid-Atlantic region is an ideal place to observe this phenomenon. There is a fairly tight cluster of large cities like New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington DC that boast world-class assets. But each of these cities also faces significant problems, and those residing close by often have no personal investment in identifying solutions to the problems facing these cities.

It’s easy to feel a personal connection to places like the Camden Aquarium, the sports complex in South Philadelphia, Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and the National Mall in DC. But this same “connectedness” doesn’t carry over to the challenges facing these cities.

The Delaware Valley region is home to some of the world’s most passionate sports fans – we identify ourselves by our allegiance to our teams, like the Philadelphia Phillies. Yet we feel no personal connection to the problem of childhood hunger in Philadelphia’s 1st Congressional District – which includes Citizen Bank Park, where the Phillies play.

The health and prosperity of our cities affects the well being of people well outside the city limits. The “Teotihuacan Effect” is real – prosperous and healthy cities can elevate an entire region; together they can elevate an entire country.

To those of us that labor to improve how our cities work the challenge is clear. It’s not about getting people who live outside cities to see urban problems as their own.

It’s getting them to realize their own, very personal benefit from finding the solutions to these problems.

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user mharrsch.]

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